. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Trump, or Political Emotions

I wrote this column in case anyone’s going to be teaching the election this fall.

Trump, or Political Emotions

Dear America, if I read one more article about the Danger of Political Emotions in an election season, I might take my own life.  If I do that and fail, will the state bring me up on charges the way it’s considering to do for Chelsea Manning, whose recent suicide attempt might be prosecuted?[1]  If Obama has an ounce of decency in him he’ll make that possibility quietly go away.

If x had an ounce of decency, x would deliver justice.  Such bad math, so emotional.  But politics is always emotional.  It is a scene where structural antagonisms—genuinely conflicting interests sustaining regimes of power and value—are described in rhetoric that intensifies the fantasy of vulnerable and possible worlds.

Here is the thesis of this piece, which is about the contemporary United States.  People would like to feel free. They would like the world to have a generous cushion for all their aggression and inclination. They would like there to be a general plane of okayness governing social relations.  It is hard for some to see that the “generous cushion for aggression” might conflict with the “general plane of okayness.”

When I listen to Donald Trump, I think he’s not wrong about some things, especially the awful neoliberal-Clintonian trade deals and bank deregulation that sold out the working class in the US because of a muddled idea that any wealth at all is a general social benefit.  But Donald Trump is our current best exhibit of two other pretty solid truths about politics, thinking, and feeling.

One is: A Good Account of a Problem Predicts Absolutely Nothing About the Value of a Solution.

I am a professor.  I have read three decades of essays that set up problems beautifully and then fall apart in the what is to be done section.  Sanders and Trump inflamed their audiences with searing critiques of Capitalism’s unfairness. Then what? Then Trump’s response to what he has genuinely seen is, analytically speaking, word salad. Trump is sound and fury and garble. Yet—and this is key—the noise in his message increases the apparent value of what’s clear about it. The ways he’s right seem more powerful, somehow, in relief against the ways he’s blabbing. Plus, apart from rebooting capitalism, nobody in mainstream politics is that visionary about what to do, because everyone has to be patriotic toward capitalism, since that’s come to stand for freedom.

Two: the second thing about Trump is that Trump is free.

You watch him calculating, yet not seeming to care about the consequences of what he says, and you listen to his supporters enjoying the feel of his freedom. See the brilliant interviews on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, where RNC conventioneers say, over and over: We’re for Trump because he’s not politically correct, PC has harmed America, and you think, people feel so unfree.[2]

Let’s sit with that.

For some people in the liberal tradition, the equal distribution of suffering has come to look like democracy, which is why they are so excited by the phrase “the 1%.”  The rich are not suffering!  It’s not fair! Everyone should be equally vulnerable!

But Trump’s people don’t use suffering as a metric of virtue.  They want fairness of a sort, but mainly they seek freedom from shame. Civil rights and feminism aren’t just about the law after all, they are about manners, and emotions too: those “interest groups” get right in there and reject what feels like people’s spontaneous, ingrained responses.  People get shamed, or lose their jobs, for example, when they’re just having a little fun making fun. Anti-PC means “I feel unfree.”

The Trump Emotion Machine is delivering feeling ok, acting free. Being ok with one’s internal noise, and saying it, and demanding that it matter.  In the politically emotional contemporary world, Internal Noise Matters.  The reason white people can be so reactively literal-minded about Black Lives Matter, reeling off the other “lives” that matter too, isn’t only racism. It’s that in capitalism, in liberal society, in many personal relationships, they feel used like tools, or ignored, or made to feel small, like gnats.  They feel that they don’t matter, and they’re not wrong.

They’re saying, I want to matter.  They’re saying I want my friends, my group, to matter.  Who matters? Why should group x matter more, or first, or get more attention? It’s hard for the formerly optimistic and unmarked whites to feel right about other people mattering before they do, because they didn’t know that their freedom was bought on the backs of other people’s exploitation and exile from protection by the law.[3] They thought their freedom was their property, constitutionally.  They’re wrong about that: liberty has always been a bargaining tool.  But they’ve been sold an ideology that hides the truths of structural inequality in an Oz-like image of capitalist democracy and individual sovereignty.

To summarize: where the mainstream is concerned, all politics is emotional because all politics is sentimental, attaching people to dreams of a better good life through the law’s good heart. The nation was supposed to deliver justice but that’s not working out too well, so we switched to “the nation saves hope, without hope there’s no hope, etc.” Donald Trump foments hope in the exercise of his emotional freedom. The Democratic party fomented hope at its convention by borrowing from the maternalist playbook of the 19th century (my mother! my daughter! our children!) and the liberation theology of universal love with a policy obligation that we identify with a defanged version of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Donald Trump loves too, you know: he says it all the time. I think he means it, if love means mutual idealization. The Democrats under Clinton have hope and love: not fairness. The reboot of the New Deal lost, this time, to Google Democracy: try to do no evil, and protect the profits.

Anyway, one party’s message is radical and incoherent, and the other’s, the Democrat’s, is moderate-conservative and traditional. All the messages are emotional.


[1]The prospect of the state’s intensification of punishment in response to the reported suicide attempt has been widely reported. For extended analysis, see Democracy Now! at http://www.democracynow.org/2016/8/3/chelsea_manning_faces_indefinite_solitary_confinement and The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/28/chelsea-manning-suicide-attempt-military-charges-wikileaks.

[2] The Full Frontal RNC interviews on PC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poNCTQuWC6U; The Full Frontal RNC interviews on Black Lives Matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81dhho3JuK4.  I keep wanting to write white people every time I type “people” but it would be more accurate to use James Baldwin’s phrase “the people who think they are white.” Then, there’s the homophobic and misogyny part that racial typification doesn’t quite cover where anti-PC is concerned. Argh. For the time being I’ll leave the term unevenly modified to sit with the queasiness of all generalization.

[3] Since the US 19th century, sentimental politics has offered feeling right as a measure of the world’s justice or injustice. This was expressed most clearly by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  “But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?” (317) http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/uncletom/utfihbsa45t.html

Saidiya Hartman has written brilliantly on the history of white freedom as an effect of slavery and sexual subordination:  see Scenes of Subjection. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/scenes-of-subjection-9780195089844?lang=en&cc=us

Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Unequal Freedom articulates the white theft of life and value from slaves, with the importation, exploitation, and legal violence to Mexican and East Asian laborers in the US 19th and 20th centuries.  See http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674013728&content=reviews

8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is wonderful. I love this. I love that you point out that neither side is even bothering to hide that these are emotion wars. Is the hectic embrace of the emotional by both sides doing something different now re: our gender cliches, or not so much?

Comment by sfrajett

It would be interesting to see whether if a straight, Christian, white guy on the left were opposed to the conservatives of all sort, how they would try to embody their fear of his liberality. Obama was amplified negatively via race (and temperament: too cool, not bellicose, until he was) and HRC via her body, her non-soft-voicedness and Bill’s body, in the 90’s. But this time around she is vilified as much because of her greed, her drive for a cushion of wealth that will never protect her from whatever in her it is that drives her always for more. There will be more about this on this blog during this season, I think. Did you see this? http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/us/politics/hillary-clinton-money.html?_r=0

Comment by supervalentthought

I’m sitting here in Zambia, just returned from the impoverished north, and I cannot make sense of this :

“It’s that in capitalism, in liberal society, in many personal relationships, they feel used like tools, or ignored, or made to feel small, like gnats. They feel that they don’t matter, and they’re not wrong.”

Many Americans have stopped being the agents of their own lives. They don’t understand seasonality or personal responsibility or much beyond the entitlement of their good fortune living in the “oppressive” capitalist, neoliberal theme park.

Life is tentative. A daily struggle to make things good or at least survivable. The poor work so much harder, their lives are so much more complex than ours. I see the “emotions” of our politics and from a distance it looks like healthy puppies crowding the runt away from mother’s teat.

There’s an election taking place here in Zambia tomorrow, and like most of the world, it seems that everyone favors the party that will be best for them, as opposed to the party that will be best for their country. That’s apparently what politics is (as opposed to patriotism). Ask not what you can do for your country.

Was it always like this? Maybe not for white men who could afford to sacrifice a little to feel noble. But not even nobility has survived. Charity for tax deductions (receipt please). Idealism more narrow minded than bigotry. Greed before good.

You also write about vulnerability. Shared suffering. Americans know nothing about suffering. Sick babies and their mothers in rural Bihar India suffer. Nothing to alleviate their pain except quack medicines and abusive spouses. And they have no where to go except silence or death.

You write about the 1%. Every person who attends a Trump or Clinton or Stein or what’s his name Johnson really IS the global 1%. Our freedom is boundless compared to the 99%. Our wealth is an embarrassment. Capitalism isn’t the problem, only the exacerbater (if there is no such word, there should be).

Enough. Thanks for reading.

Written on a tablet. Please excuse the tpyos.

Comment by henryten

I couldn’t agree with you more about the problem of suffering and scale, of the feeling of life at the limit and people pushed beyond the limit at the limit of life. At the same time, I have learned firsthand and secondhand that the space of defeat is not homogeneous, is not a monotone. I have learned not to disrespect people’s struggles to survive in the event that I can find a greater suffering elsewhere that makes the first example look smaller or even ridiculous (as in your comment about the puppies and the teat). I have learned not to disrespect people’s scavenging for a life worth attaching to. So I just want to make better worlds to attach to. If I read your photographs correctly, so do you. As for capitalism, if all it is is an exacerbater that intensifies the precariousness of life, it matters to fight what makes things worse. Thanks for writing.

Comment by supervalentthought

Hi Lauren, your writing about Cruel Optimism was referenced in a video I was watching about binge/excess culture (link below), so I came along to your site here to read some more of your philosophy. Started with this article, and I’m blown away. I especially liked the paragraph starting “But Trump’s people don’t use suffering as a metric of virtue.” Coming from a pretty working class background I always assumed people responded to right wing politics from a Calvinist virtue perspective (the other doesn’t work/suffer as much as me, so they deserve less) but freedom from shame makes a lot of sense. Lot’s to think about!

If you have time to answer, to learn more about Cruel Optimism and ways to apply it to my thinking would I be best served jumping straight into your 2011 book , or should I start with something earlier of yours and work up to it to make the most of it? I will check it out anyway, and enjoy your blog entries nonetheless.

Thank you.

Binge Video – 8 Bit Philosophy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0QNCv4J4Z8)

Comment by Ian Whitehead

[…] Lauren Berlant on Trump and Political Feelings–how he makes white American “feel” … […]

Pingback by Political Feelings and Trump – LOVE TRUMPS HATE WORKING GROUP

I view politics as a cry (perhaps barbaric yawp is more appropriate) for recognition.We battle over the kinds of suffering we will acknowledge, from whom we will acknowledge suffering, the form in which we will and are even capable of acknowledging suffering, and how we can justify profiting from the suffering of some other. I see strains of this in this post, which are reflections of lessons that have stuck with me as a former student of yours, Professor.

However, since I am reading and writing this after the election, I am now pondering how political emotions get drained and translated into law and lawlessness, and then attached to bodies. I fear this process to the extent that it is real and actual. Through it, we have a legitimate mechanism that allows us to fail in recognizing and confronting our political emotions and those of others (and may even trap ourselves within their paradigm). It is not clear to me we actually engage in the hard work of making better worlds for ourselves and others in this process. By moving from the political to the juridical we engage in a project of prioritizing, bargaining, and expending with suffering (I have my doubts that suffering is the kind of thing that should be cashed in and paid out); and, the more we treat law as if it is not equal to politics, the more we attach people to worlds that dissect and toss away political emotions. We need worlds, within and outside of the law, where we can acknowledge and develop rituals around political emotions and suffering. Otherwise, I suspect we are all just waiting for the unheard part of ourselves to speak violence. Law and lawlessness allows us to speak and enact violence on others in the most “unnatural” and indirect of ways without ever needing to reflect or emote on the sentiments that initially gave rise to those paradigms of law and lawlessness.

I do not view any of this as being new in regards to what gave rise to President-Elect Trump or what will be of his presidency. In fact, if President-Elect Trump makes any of this more apparent in ways we have been able to too easily ignore and set aside since the 90s or earlier, then the people of the U.S. may have an opportunity to work towards a sustained politics of recognition that will create new worlds, stable and unstable, from which more people can attach and detach.

Comment by Outlaw

I couldn’t agree more with you, but for this: the process of moving among affect and infrastructures that shift what can be thought and done *is* politics, is world-building, although world-building rhetoric often plays out as a game of distraction from the exposure of power hoarding and ordinary world-destroying episodic violence. So the affect/law/politics cluster amounts to scanning what x looks like, what it is, and the pressure to develop judgment for guessing if there’s a long term game for adding up to one something or a ghastly frenetic scene of bargaining. So sometimes the law is seen as above politics for good and ill (Obama’s shameful literalism v prosecuting whistleblowers while falsely claiming transparency in government and double-voiced prodreamer/deportation actions) and sometimes is seen as the sovereign tool of politics. No ontology of the political but reality testing.

Comment by supervalentthought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: